Connection Between Domestic Violence and Mental Illness

According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, a common assumption is that domestic abuse is caused by a partner’s mental health condition.

Some of the terms thrown around are bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), narcissistic personality, borderline personality or antisocial personality. No doubt, these are serious mental health conditions but they are not the cause for domestic abuse.

Nothing in the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” fifth edition (DSM 5) states that a mental illness solely causes a partner to be abusive in a relationship.

But there are a distinct number of diagnoses that can increase the risk of abusive patterns to show up in a relationship and in other areas of life.

When a person is mentally ill, all areas of his or her life – work, relations with friends, family engagement and personal relationships – are impacted. In contrast, abuse primarily impacts personal relationships and typically not the other areas of life. Abusive behavior in an intimate partner relationship and mental illness are two separate entities.

Because abusive behaviors occur mostly in one’s relationship with an intimate partner, it’s common that an abusive partner will not show their negative or harmful behaviors with friends, coworkers or family members. An abusive partner portrays a front that all is happy and well for the rest of the world to see. But things change when it’s just the abusive partner and victim. That’s when a different side of the abuser comes out, which is the polar opposite of the abuser’s portrayal. Friends and other family members are not in tune to the abuser’s behavioral patterns.

The impact of being the only person to see this behavior is often isolating for the victim, as they may think (or the abusive person may even say) that no one else will believe them, because no one else has witnessed the abusive behaviors. This also makes it easier for the abusive person to make their partner feel responsible for their abusive behavior, which reinforces the isolation.

Lundy Bancroft, author of “Why Does He Do That?” which was written in 2002, clarifies that an abusive partner’s “value system is unhealthy, not their psychology.” Yes, it can appear as if an abusive partner has a mental illness when they get upset and use physical or verbal abuse. If the abuse were caused by a mental illness, the partner would also yell at and/or hit their family members, friends and coworkers when upset. With domestic abuse, however, the abuser usually yells at and/or hits only their partner.

There are times when there is a correlation between domestic abuse and mental illness. There are cases of individuals who have mental illness and are also abusive to their partners. There are also many individuals who have a mental illness and are healthy and supportive partners. If a partner does have a mental illness and is abusive, it’s important to keep in mind that the mental illness and abusive behaviors need to be addressed separately by the abusive partner. It is the abusive partner’s responsibility to seek out support and create their own plan for managing their mental illness and be accountable for their abusive behavior. If a partner is not owning up to their actions, is not admitting to how much they’re hurting the victim, and is not seeking out professional help then that’s a sign that that partner isn’t willing to change. If that’s the case, then the abuse in the relationship tends to continue and escalate over time.

The following questions may help clarify whether what a partner is doing is abuse or abuse with mental illness:

  • Does the abusive partner yell or scream at others (friends, coworkers, family members) outside of our relationship?
  • Does the partner make others check in to see where they’re at and who they’re with?
  • Does the partner hit others outside of the intimate relationship?
  • Does the partner minimize or verbally tear down others?
  • Does the partner pressure others to do things that they aren’t okay with?
  • Does the partner make threats to others when they say something the partner doesn’t agree with?

If the answer to most of the aforementioned questions is no, then most likely the partner is abusive without mental illness. If the answer to most of those questions is yes, then it’s possible the partner is abusive and also may be experiencing some form of mental health issue or illness. Lundy Bancroft’s book, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” has a chapter on untangling a partner’s mental health issues from abusive behaviors. Additionally, connecting with a support network, including a domestic violence advocate or counselor who specializes in domestic violence may help support in determining the opposite partner’s options.

Even if a partner does have a mental illness, there is never an excuse for abuse. Abuse is a choice someone makes in order to maintain power and control over a partner. If a partner is abusive, regardless of whether they have a mental illness or not, they have no right to treat their partner in that manner. People always deserve to have a healthy, loving, supportive, trusting and safe relationship 100 percent of the time.

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